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Urban Scrawl : They've Got It Covered : Armed With Paint, Rollers and City Assistance, Residents Launch Counteroffensives in the War on Graffiti Taggers. Often It Comes Down to a Battle of Wills.

April 04, 1993|JAKE DOHERTY

In the campaign against graffiti, a reliable alarm clock and a willingness to beat the sunrise can be as important as a bucket of paint and a sturdy roller.

"Graffiti should never see the light of day," said Patsy Carter of the 23rd Street Neighbors. The group, whose members live just north of USC, has achieved a measure of success in its battle against graffiti by waking up in the wee hours to paint over nocturnal scribblings.

Graffiti--an Italian word meaning scratchings or scribblings--is hardly a new phenomenon. Anthropologists have even found ancient graffiti on the monuments of Egypt and the ruins of Pompeii.

Yet few places can compare with the miles of urban scrawl in Los Angeles County, concentrated in, but no longer confined to, Central Los Angeles.

"It's ugly, it's an eyesore and it's always there," said Lori Gay, president of Neighborhood Housing Services of Los Angeles, a neighborhood revitalization group. Beyond aesthetic complaints, merchants and property owners say, graffiti scares away prospective customers or tenants.

Faced with a seemingly endless task, civic groups, public employees, law enforcement officials and some hardy individuals attack graffiti with a mixture of gritty determination, education and coercion.

On the other side of the graffiti abatement debate are young artists and their supporters who argue that more legal opportunities for youths to practice their brand of expression, rooted in hip-hop street culture, might cut down on tagging. Some say a community approach is needed that directs youths to available art and recreation programs while supporting counseling, mandatory cleanups and legal sanctions for violators.

Taggers, responsible for the recent explosion of graffiti, are mostly looking for recognition, but they lack direction, positive role models and "don't know what else to do," said Man One, 21, an artist who has legally obtained permission to paint graffiti-style murals at a number of sites. "There are problems in the city and that's why there is graffiti. It's a symptom of bigger problems."

But, so far, programs specifically designed to deter tagging, such as the Los Angeles Conservation Corps' Clean and Green program and the independent Graffiti Arts Coalition, have reached a small number of taggers.

Meanwhile, graffiti eradication remains an expensive problem that diverts scant funds from other projects. Indeed, $66 million in private and public funds were spent in 1991 on graffiti removal in Los Angeles County, according to the state Department of Transportation.

The city's own efforts to clean up graffiti will cost about $3.7 million this year. At least half of the city's more than 30 departments use part of their budgets to erase graffiti, according to city figures.

Many of the city's efforts against graffiti are coordinated by Operation Clean Sweep, a program housed in a cramped City Hall office. The program coordinates volunteer cleanup projects, provides free paint to groups and individuals, and responds to requests to paint over graffiti. Last year 5,000 calls were made to its hot line requesting paint-outs.

"We try to get community groups involved because the only successful way to get graffiti off so that it stays off is to get people involved," said Paul Racs, one of the operation's coordinators. "That way, as soon as the slightest bit pops up, there's someone on it."

Community involvement ranges from civic organizations and neighborhood groups to merchants and hardy individuals who roll up their sleeves in the daily fight to make a dent in the problem.

Mabelle Pittman, a member of the 108th-Hoover Street Neighborhood Assn., encourages her neighbors not to give up. Pittman and others paint over graffiti once a month in their neighborhood. "I tell people, 'This is where you live, you raised your kids here and maybe your grandkids. If you don't plan on moving, plan on improving.'

"I pray on the place where we paint. People must get for real about this."

In Westlake, John Mills of the 5th and Bonnie More Advocates for Safer Homes organizes neighborhood cleanups and tries to keep up with the latest markings. "You've got to keep plugging," Mills said. "Once you start on a wall, you can't quit. They paint, I paint, they paint, I paint. By about the fifth time I usually win."

On a recent Saturday, Mills gathered about 120 volunteers from local organizations to clean up several blocks in Westlake. The volunteers--junior high school students to senior citizens--painted from 8:30 a.m. to noon while Brian Gilman, senior lead officer of the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division, kept watch and Officer Webster Wong pitched in with a spray gun carried by a trailer attached to his patrol car. Wong and volunteer Albert Crnkovich, 68, a retired truck driver and restaurant manager who lives in Westlake, can be found nearly every Saturday somewhere in the Rampart Division spraying over graffiti.

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